When de Kooning Was King

Willem de Kooning with Ruth Kligman, in Water Mill, New York, 1959.Photo: John Jonas Gruen

Willem de Kooning returned to New York in the fall of 1956, not long after Jackson Pollock’s fatal car crash. The art world was now prepared to crown as its unrivaled leader the Dutchman who had arrived in America more than 30 years before as a penniless stowaway aboard a freighter from Rotterdam. New York had replaced Paris as the center of modern art, or so manycritics and painters regularly proclaimed. If New York could not have Picasso, it must have its own reigning genius.

The middle years of the fifties were a halcyon moment in the life of de Kooning and the New York art world. Success, still fresh and unexpected, had not yet imposed its burdens; and the future remained rich in possibility. De Kooning was too tense a man—and too committed to the difficulties of art—to pursue any version of the good life without ambivalence. But he seemed during this period to live in a happier light. Not only had he left behind the gloomy Fourth Avenue studio where he had struggled endlessly to finish his darkly mythic Woman I, he had also risked revealing his demons in that painting and ended up earning praise rather than scorn. Working in a brighter studio on 10th Street, he had swept through the remaining paintings of the “Women” series without suffering any major blocks and then moved on to a new series of large, commanding abstractions.

Many in the art world were in a mood to celebrate with him. The Museum of Modern Art was preparing a show of Abstract Expressionist works to send to cities across Europe that would not only attract crowds but also deliver the implicit message that New York now dominated high culture. The art world was even beginning to glitter. It was not impossible that, on some stray evening, a fashionable person like Gloria Vanderbilt would show up at the Cedar Bar—the favored haunt of the downtown artists—although that was still rare. De Kooning’s uptown dealer, Sidney Janis, was aggressively signing up additional contemporary artists and beginning to sell their work. Leo Castelli, recognizing the developing market, was making plans to open a gallery. The modern-art world, the one known today, was beginning to take form.

The New York scene jelled on de Kooning’s doorstep. Throughout the fifties, young artists poured into the city, typically settling in the area becoming known as “Tenth Street,” a low-rent section of the Village between 8th and 12th streets and First and Sixth avenues. The center of the district was de Kooning’s street; a number of the more established artists of the period already lived on this block between Third and Fourth avenues, including Esteban Vicente, Philip Guston, Michael Goldberg, and Milton Resnick. Early in the fifties, the Hansa Gallery, the Stable Gallery, the Martha Jackson Gallery, and the Tibor de Nagy Gallery began showing the art of emerging artists in the neighborhood. As the art scene grew, young painters also began to form cooperative galleries managed and financed by the artists themselves. The first to open was the Tanager Gallery in 1952. By 1957, the Camino, Brata, March, and Area galleries had joined the Tanager on de Kooning’s block. De Kooning’s main hangouts, the Cedar and the celebrated meeting place known as “the Club,” were also in the neighborhood, further intensifying the sense of cultural momentum. Although a few young artists in the Tenth Street galleries were already resisting de Kooning’s influence, many adopted his gestural “language” and almost all revered him.

After two drinks, de Kooning became a brilliant and seductive talker. Before that he was too reserved; later, too drunk.

After a lecture or panel at the Club, de Kooning would typically walk to the Cedar with a group of friends, some of whom would carry the arguments of the evening onto the street. Familiar greetings would ring out from old friends as he entered the bar. “Hiya, fellas,” de Kooning would say. “Hiya, fellas.” From the crowd, Elaine de Kooning—who remained married to the artist but lived on her own—would toss him a wave. Robert Rauschenberg would smile. Frank O’Hara would make room for him at the bar. The Cedar smelled of spilled beer and tobacco smoke. The air was thick, the light a putrid yellow-green, which, according to one Cedar regular, “made everyone look worse than they already looked.” In the low light, you could not be sure, at first, who was sitting in the booths along the wall. The Cedar—reminiscent of the “brown bars” of Rotterdam that de Kooning grew up around—was a working-class saloon entirely without distinction. And that, in the New York of the fifties, was precisely its distinction. It was not French, not tasteful, not smooth, not witty. These were important “not”s to painters determined to declare their independence from Paris. The Americans were hard drinkers at a dive whose existential aura owed more to Brando on the docks than to Sartre at Les Deux Magots.

Often, de Kooning would belly up beside Franz Kline, who always seemed to be finishing one beer and calling to Sam or John, the owners, for another. Franz, people said, lived on beer the way a baby lived on mother’s milk. De Kooning, like other regulars, would lay a bill on the bar and begin to run a tab. While waiting for Sam to fix his drink, he might make a small crack about the conversation at the Club—“Yaaah, it was a lot of baloney”—as if to brush aside the fancy philosophizing of poseurs and get down to the more serious business of discussing paint. In the circle around de Kooning and Kline, there was still a working-class suspicion of newcomers who talked big but did not know firsthand what it meant to be a day-to-day artist during the hard Depression and war years. Although de Kooning usually changed into clean clothes when he went to a party or to an event at the Club, he sometimes wore his paint-stained overalls to the Cedar. The poets and younger artists regarded the stains with admiration.

De Kooning would order scotch, which was stronger and cost more than beer—a symbol of the growing prosperity of the art world. The New York painters now lived in a way that others increasingly wished to emulate. The fifties would eventually become their version of the Roaring Twenties. De Kooning and his contemporaries came from roughly the same generation as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, but unlike those writers, they had not enjoyed youthful success and now appeared determined to make up for lost time. After two drinks, a close friend said, de Kooning—usually a shy man—became a brilliant and seductive talker. Before that he was too reserved; later, too drunk. This kind of fine distinction was often voiced in the hard-drinking fifties. Businessmen took pride in three-martini lunches, and many painters believed alcohol stimulated art, conversation, and sexual desire. De Kooning’s conversational style was pungent, unexpected, gestural, and utterly distinctive. There was something sui generis in his manner, something irreducibly individual. Saul Steinberg, one of the great wits of the time, relished de Kooning’s Dutch accent and way with words, such as when de Kooning called the rich “the ritz.”

The marvelous thing was his homemade eloquence. It was a real act of creation… . I would watch him starting to say something partly because of the fume of the drink, partly because he was bored. Then he would make a U-turn in midair. What it amounts to is to be able to catch up with your thinking while talking. Also to think while you’re talking… . The secret of interesting talk is not to deliver lines but to invent… . He mostly spoke in malaprops, but they were beautiful. The fact that he used primitive English for refined purposes is the essence of poetry.

It was during the middle fifties that de Kooning’s way of thinking, talking, and behaving became the essential model for many New York artists and poets. That model depended, above all, upon the pleasures of subversion and the violated boundary. Pollock was often regarded as the pioneer in this regard, the man who broke the limits of conventional European practice not only in his painting but also in his cowboy-on-a-spree drunks. De Kooning, the immigrant from Europe, forever caught betwixt and between cultures, engaged in a more subtle and poetic subversion than Pollock’s, one that led him not toward Pollock’s boundary-smashing rages but toward an elliptical celebration of ambiguity and a seduction of everything fixed. After two drinks, de Kooning began to talk in a way that seemed to undermine authority, confront unspoken rules about what one could or couldn’t say, and crack language itself into surprising new pieces.

The New York of the mid-fifties revered de Kooning’s kind of individuality, which stood out in an era that was often conformist in outlook. Many artists of the time picked up some of the speech patterns and affection for slang that de Kooning made his own—such as the use of the word terrific and “How do you like that.” But the most common form of imitation was a self-conscious desire on the part of many younger artists and poets to present themselves as notable “individuals” who violated boundaries in the manner of Pollock and de Kooning. This crowding toward the individual had begun earlier in the fifties. (Harold Rosenberg, one of de Kooning’s champions, referred drily to the “herd of independent minds.”) But no young painter could use Pollock’s technique without being accused of overt copying. De Kooning’s brushstroke, by contrast, celebrated a kind of personal handwriting, a living record of one’s feelings and sensations. At a certain moment, to move a brush like de Kooning seemed to represent the epitome of grace under pressure: His brushstroke was manly, beautiful, despairing, and he attracted followers much as Hemingway did. “De Kooning really took a whole generation with him,” said Clement Greenberg, “like the flute player of the fairy tale.”

Many painters especially admired the open-endedness of de Kooning’s approach, which seemed to fill the world with possibility. His decision to return to the “Women” earlier in the decade reassured those who, searching for their own way, feared or disliked the diktats of a critic like Greenberg. “Bill had the attitude ‘I want to reverse it all the time. So give me something to reverse,’ ” said Conrad Marca-Relli. “He was not a guy who was going to find a dogmatic idea, invent one image, and stay with that, like Rothko and Newman.” But it was not merely the charm of his idiosyncratic outlook that explains why de Kooning became for many in this period such an inspiring figure. Artists loved his workingman’s attitude and unpretentious manner. He worked hard, he suffered hard, he played hard. He paid his dues. De Kooning, everyone instinctively knew, was never just a performer. He was an immigrant with no choice but to invent himself. A New Yorker by necessity.

Was de Kooning still competing with Pollock? “Going with Ruth really put the stone on Jackson’s grave,” said one friend.

The neighborhood galleries would often organize joint openings on Friday evenings, creating a kind of floating cocktail party along Tenth Street. De Kooning, as he came down the steps to the street from his studio, was acknowledged as a modern master at work in New York. He would unfailingly encourage the new kids on the block and find something respectful to say about their work, whatever his private doubts, even if it was just his trademark “Terrific, terrific.” Everywhere he turned on Tenth Street, he would come upon complimentary reflections of himself, as if he lived surrounded by admiring mirrors. He saw his importance not just in the eyes of artists and hangers-on but in the paintings of followers who worked in what was sometimes called l’école de Kooning. (“They can’t do the ones that don’t work,” he said of his imitators.) He did not have the reputation of Picasso, of course—no living artist did—and he could not compete with the sainted dead, such as Pollock. But the camera loved de Kooning, as it did Picasso, and de Kooning, too, led a private life that attracted gossip. His drunks were becoming legendary, and behind his fair countenance seemed to lie a brooding darkness that the sentimental could regard as romantic, for weren’t geniuses supposed to suffer?

At openings or at the Cedar, de Kooning could not fail to notice the stares of the young women painters and poets who, intoxicated by dreams of art, were eager to sleep with the American Picasso. In 1956, de Kooning had a daughter, Lisa, with Joan Ward, a pretty and talented commercial artist who, with her twin sister, Nancy, was a popular figure at the Cedar. Although he adored his baby daughter, de Kooning was not a domestic man and engaged in many affairs during the period. And in 1957, the star of the scene took a theatrical lover. Hardly anyone at the Cedar who heard that de Kooning had begun seeing Ruth Kligman could believe it. Or perhaps it was poetic injustice. Kligman was the sole survivor of the car crash that killed Pollock and Kligman’s friend Edith Metzger. In the eyes of most artists, she was the hot young thing who had swooped into the drunken Pollock’s deteriorating life, driving away the painter’s wife, Lee Krasner, and behaving with a va-va-voom flamboyance new to the art world.

Kligman had about her the air of the earthy, voluptuous movie stars of the era, such as Elizabeth Taylor or Sophia Loren. She wore clingy dresses, and her voice was throaty and seductive, as if it were made for sharing secrets. But what understandably excited and impressed the gossips, drinkers, and armchair psychiatrists at the Cedar was how psychologically strange and revealing the new relationship appeared. Was Bill still competing with Pollock, even now, after Jackson’s death? “Going with Ruth really put the stone on Jackson’s grave,” said one friend, “and it was often regarded that way at the time.” Kligman believed that sex alone was not what attracted either Pollock or de Kooning to her: They were no less interested in her mind. According to Kligman, what she and de Kooning mostly did together was talk, passionately, often about art. If Kligman was swept up in a romantic dream of the artist’s life, however, de Kooning himself was probably somewhat more calculating: It’s remarkable what intelligence a middle-aged man will find in a young woman he wants to bed.

And yet, it was certainly not just a come-hither look that interested de Kooning. When he was with Ruth, his life seemed to play out on a grand stage. The critics Harold Rosenberg and Tom Hess might praise de Kooning without reservation, but they were also intellectuals and instinctive skeptics. Elaine might call him a genius, but she also knew him too well and from too far back. His old friends might acknowledge his achievement, but they were not going to stand around genuflecting. In Ruth’s adoring gaze, there were no such qualifications: He was Picasso, Rembrandt, and Van Gogh. And she made him feel youthful. All his life, de Kooning worried about advancing age and death, but Ruth made a point of living as if there were no tomorrow. Her willingness to stay up all night talking between drinks and kisses was characteristic of the young. He liked that she came from poor beginnings, as he himself did, and was making her way in the world. And he always retained a certain admiration for theatrical figures. After the lean years, Ruth was de Kooning’s fleshy reward, the fruit of the strange, imperial interregnum in his life.

At no other time in his life did de Kooning step forward into American culture in this public a fashion, not only accepting but even seeking the spotlight. It would have been remarkable, of course, if he had resisted the blandishments of celebrity. His difficult youth, his anxiety as an immigrant, his years of struggle, and his desire to succeed in the New World made it unlikely that he would simply turn his back on attention: The money and renown must have seemed a kind of miraculous gift. But even as he first knew success, he began to look away. The abstract paintings that de Kooning completed in the city in the late fifties turned eastward, reflecting the light, ocean, and color of Long Island.

The large and heavy brushstrokes were often compared at the time to highways, and aptly so, for during this period de Kooning was constantly traveling back and forth between his New York studio and a house in the Springs. Although he never learned to drive a car, he loved to sit in the passenger seat, observing the unfolding highway and glimpsing the passing landscape. The new paintings, while touched by the country and dreams of escape, were bold and declamatory, even domineering. De Kooning did not fuss overmuch in these pictures with small subtleties. The beautiful highway strokes swept across the picture plane with the bravura of an emperor traveling through his dominions. (De Kooning would paint softer, more yielding landscapes a few years later when he gave up his position in New York.) The paintings had panache; they displayed the confident “grand style” of which de Kooning sometimes dreamed. He always enjoyed looking at the billboards along the highway, and his pictures of the time capture the eye with the instantaneous impact—the gotcha—of an unforgettable sign.

De Kooning’s art dealer, Sidney Janis, was delighted with these particular abstractions. He believed that de Kooning, as long as he did not return to the figure, would remain the dominant painter of his time. Janis and his wife, Harriet, who occasionally wrote about art, now talked about publishing a book to help promote the painter. But such talk only made de Kooning anxious, and in the late fifties, he began to resist proffered laurels. When the Museum of Modern Art approached him in the winter of 1958 about organizing a one-man show—an extraordinary honor in those days for a living American artist—de Kooning turned down the invitation, saying he was “not ready.”

On May 4, 1959, Janis opened an exhibit of the large new abstractions. The gallery was jammed by 5 P.M., the official opening time, but the line of admirers first formed at 8:15 that morning. At the opening, according to one reviewer, de Kooning was “doing his unsuccessful best to fade into the woodwork.” Nineteen of the 22 oils were sold by noon, ranging in price from $2,200 for the smallest oil sketch to $14,000 for each of the five big canvases. By the end of the week, every work had sold. The notices in the press were adulatory.

De Kooning himself was beginning to smell the bull in the extravagant praise. The review in Time magazine, titled “Big Splash,” contained a strangely defensive remark that suggested his growing weariness with the art scene. “There’s no way of astonishing anyone anymore,” de Kooning told the reviewer. “I’m selling my own image now. It’s being understood. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.” De Kooning always liked to outflank his critics by insisting that he actually sought what certain critics disliked. But it’s doubtful that he really thought that “that’s the way it’s supposed to be.” The remark sounded like it came from the ironic Pop Artists, whom de Kooning would later criticize for having no “innocence.” The same review mentioned that de Kooning “shuts himself up in his Greenwich Village studio for weeks at a time, refusing to see visitors or acknowledge telegrams.”

Coming into de kooning’s studio one day, not long after their relationship began, Ruth Kligman saw a large blue-and-yellow painting on the wall and exclaimed “Zowie!,” a piece of art criticism de Kooning relished. It might remain the ambition of de Kooning and his friends to create a “masterpiece,” but in the late fifties it would have seemed too corny and hifalutin—and too European—to use a word like that. “Zowie” was the sort of sinewy street slang that de Kooning and the other painters preferred. In Ruth’s eyes, de Kooning had knocked one outta da park. Hit the jackpot. Scored big-time. Kaboom!

Later, de Kooning called the painting Ruth’s Zowie, which sounded like an open-ended and lubricious euphemism, such as the title of a jazz tune about a great time in the sack. The painting contained an explosive coming-together of brushstrokes, a knotting of forms into a climactic burst. There was an angular velocity to the feminine V shapes, and the “wet on wet” application of the paint had a slip-and-slide quality that was sexual in feeling. Some areas of the painting appeared worked upon and lingered over. Others had the quick inspiration of a caress. Even so, Ruth’s Zowie was not just about lovemaking. As usual, de Kooning’s feeling for content was glimpsing, elliptical, fragmentary. The palette of the picture actually contained few flesh tones: Its blues and greens and yellows suggested a watery landscape splashed by sunlight more than they did a female figure. In any case, as in so many de Kooning paintings, figure and landscape became almost one.

What was new about Ruth’s Zowie—and the work generally from this period—was the singular, declarative power of individual brushstrokes. Not only were they fewer and larger than before, but they dominated the foreground, which, in turn, governed the rest of the painting. The negative space and the complex interlacing of strokes became less important than in his earlier work. Ruth’s Zowie was an early example of de Kooning’s muscular, imperial style. The commanding brushstrokes—like the new highways then overpowering the American landscape—proudly claimed great swaths of space. An air of performance and exaggeration is natural to an imperial style, which has traditionally depended on theatricality to wow the crowd. As Kligman’s admiring declaration suggested, the painting was not lost in details or byways but had a splashy simplicity and an impressive stylishness, too, with its long, confident strokes and, in places, elegant turns of the wrist. An imperial style is vested in a celebrated man. In Ruth’s Zowie, de Kooning seemed to throw his whole body (not just an arm or a wrist) into the rhythms of the painting; the picture has his physical impress. This was the work of a painter at once public and personal, a master of his milieu, whose autobiographical “mark” created wonder and applause in the New York audience.

Excerpt from de Kooning: An American Master (Alfred A. Knopf).

When de Kooning Was King